Tragic Kingdom

Open cars and clearer stars
That’s what I’ve lacked
But fantasy world and Disney girls
I’m coming back

Bruce Johnston wrote Disney Girls for The Beach Boys’ 1971 album Surf’s Up. The actual song title includes the year 1957 to make sure we knew this was a nostalgic look back complete with reference to ‘Ricky and David’ (as with most mentions, if you don’t know these two please stop reading) which just about corresponds to when Disneyland was really catching on with the kids. I was fortunate enough to be taken there by my parents in December of 1966 as perhaps a gift for my coming Bar Mitzvah. I was very fortunate to fly cross country when most of my friends were years away from a trip to the airport.

Back then Disneyland was the stuff of Golden Book adventures, 3D View-master sets, Mickey, Donald and Goofy cartoons and B roll in the credits for The Magical World Of Disney that played on just about every network. I don’t remember that much but I do have photos of me riding a horse in Frontierland with my brother Adam, then just five. My father said that the first time Adam actually asked for something was when he pulled on his sleeve so he could have a second go on the Submarine Voyage which was a seat on a bench in a hull about eight inches below the surface tracking past a diorama of plastic aquatic creatures. The tech was so lame it made Diver Dan look like Avatar II. Again, if you don’t know Diver Dan….

You should know that my brother Adam is severely autistic and now, at 62, is an older adult with autism but an easy guy to be with with a hankering for 60s Top 40, Broadway musicals from the same era and 500-count jigsaw puzzles. 

So a few months ago, in the wake of my father’s passing and my brother’s loss of Doug, his roommate through a series of group homes for the past 30 years, I decided to take him to Disney World. I hadn’t been in 25 years outside of a day at Disneyland with my daughter a solid 15 years ago. On the earlier trip I not only had my kids and my then wife Lisa but also my mother-in-law, the latter two being more trouble than the kids. All I recall is about twenty turns on the Barnstormer kiddie coaster and American Express calling me mid-trip with firm direction to “put the card away Mr. Gross.”

So I booked a little condo on VRBO, bought some plane tickets for Adam and Monica, his support staff, and drove up from Miami to meet them. I also bought three days worth of park tickets at a solid $1300. This is USD for bookings of a day each at The Magic Kingdom, Disney Hollywood Studios and Animal Planet. This maxed out my advance planning skills.

We get to what I call The Tragic Kingdom for the first day and after paying forty five bucks for the Preferred Parking option, called such because Disney prefers you pay more for the same Bataan Death March endured by the slobs paying just $25 for Non-Preferred, we got to what was not quite the park entrance. To get to the actual turnstiles, we had a choice of the monorail or, as I came to know it, the Disney Slave Ship Experience on one of their ferries to the dystopian scanning pods where they take your fingerprints under the guise of security for your park pass in case it is stolen. Couldn’t you just report the card as stolen to deactivate it? When I balked they said I could take my case to customer service but I had Adam with me and it wasn’t fair to him or Monica to delay the festivities so I acceded to the fingerprint under duress. I regret taking the COVID vaccine. I hope I don’t regret giving the Disney Company my fingerprints. Welcome to the total surveillance hellscape of the future, way more of a Tomorrowland experience than the actual Tomorrowland. More on that later. Trust me, Disney is just testing us but in a few steps there were were on Disney’s Main Street as I remember it, built by its ‘Imagineers’ to replicate a typical American town sometime after the turn of the century, the 20th century to be sure, back when sarsaparilla was a thing.

Now it looks a little tired, a relic of an America that has long gone away, no more than a thin veneer for the unrelenting blitz of Disney merchandise in every friggin’ store on the street. First thing I learn is that Adam’s beloved Submarine Voyage was closed a long time ago. Sat a little shiva for it and we went to what was left of retro Adventureland and our first attraction, a steady climb up the tree that housed The Swiss Family Robinson of the 1960 Disney movie. This slight attraction is beyond antique because the unwashed mob at the park never even heard of the shipwrecked adventures of John Mills and Dorothy McGuire and their sons Fritz, Ernst and Francis. People kind of stared at the rooms with a “WTF” look and then moved on quickly. This attraction was supposed to have closed decades ago and replaced with a Tarzan treehouse but that film stiffed so the Imagineers haven’t figured out a replacement.

It was close to The Jungle Cruise, a first gen Disney ride that became a shitty film just last year, featuring The Rock and his eyebrows. The wait was listed in months which was a non-starter until I saw something called ‘The Lightning Lane’ which was open to people who had paid for the Disney Genie option on the app. I had no idea what this was so out comes the phone and I’m desperately throwing in credit card security numbers so I can drop another $66 for Genie passes for the three of us. Per day. Then I’m making reservations on anything I can find, some of which are another $11 a ticket. We got an opening at It’s A Small World, another ride which dates back, in this case, to the pre-Vietnam 1964 World’s Fair in New York and consists of a boat ride through continents of cute Lego kids of mostly pale complexions to an endless refrain of the song of the same name. This took Adam back so I am going to go easy but there are reports they are going to euthanize this attraction and for very good reason. The multi-cultural cliche tropes – children dressed as French whores doing the Can Can in front of the Eiffel Tower has the stench of kiddie porn – have pretty much disappeared with the McDonaldization of the civilized world. It’s A Small World is a foam core relic that was built around the promise of a jet set future where the unspoiled second and third worlds would be within reach. Didn’t quite work out that way. For those of us that were fortunate enough to remember the New York World’s Fair, the theme was progress and we bought into that because as Tom Petty sang, “…the future was wide open…”

And on it went, battling through the thousands of strollers to the tired 1971 animatronics of The Pirates Of The Caribbean, toned down from an earlier “rapey” version and the only ride which birthed a successful film franchise. Next was the ghastly Haunted Mansion with voice over from the truly dead Paul Frees in the style of the iconic and equally dead Vincent Price, asking that if we want to join this ghoulish cabal arrangements can be made at the end of the ride. I half expected to see an information booth from our very own Canadian MAIDS death merchants. 

Then it was the close-by Liberty Square Riverboat ride around Tom Sawyer’s Island, regularly voted the worst water ride in the area code because it is. Narrated by Mark Twain when he was Sam Clemens – nobody even learns this shit in school anymore – it is an opportunity to stare at the blank faces of our brain dead fellow passengers who don’t have a clue what the narration is about because they never read the books. It was a solid hour wait to get my brother on the Dumbo The Flying Elephant ride which is just a dressed up version of every self-controlled kiddie ride you took your kids on. An hour. 

Lunch was typically Magic Kingdom, a couple of notches below your high school cafeteria at criminal pricing. What is worse is that they serve no alcoholic drinks at the Magic Kingdom. Ohh, but did I need one.

I referred to Tomorrowland earlier, which should be destroyed whole or re-imagined as Pottsyland given it looks like 1955. For some reason The Under The Sea Journey Of The Little Mermaid is situated in this area (in the Submarine’s former space) and is yet another passive drive by. The highlight is the wildly outdated Space Mountain coaster and the lowlight being the pollution-belching fifties era go karts on the ironically named Tomorrowland Speedway which we lined up for because it gives my brother the chance to get behind the wheel of a car without a whole lot of risk. And after a decent spin on the mildish Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster which features a rousing recorded chorus of “Hi Ho, Hi Ho..” I pulled the plug and we staggered back to the car which was broiling under the Florida sun.

The next day we shuffled off to Disney Hollywood which has a lot to offer for kids under the age of five. Once you put a smartphone or a pad or a game controller in a child’s hands, this arcane Disney shit is completely stupid. Your average 8 year-old has already experienced VR, maybe even VR porn if his parents don’t put a lid on it so it’s difficult to believe your own Jerry Mathers, who spends his off hours disemboweling the enemy on Fortnite, would be blown away by Goofy’s Runaway Railway or even my favorite, The Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular which, on our visit, was cut to a measly ten minutes. What a gyp! Toy Story Land is art directed with yuppies in mind because there are a lot of visual reminders of Etch-a-Sketch and Tinker Toys etc. The rides are pre-school friendly and if you have a Lightning Lane pass it’s pretty fast. Most of the kids were of that tender age and the sad part is that none of them will remember that they went, a cruel joke on their parents, many of whom can least afford these expensive outings. The only good news, unlike The Magic Kingdom, you can get a drink in this park. I hammered back a spicy marg at the formica-laden 50s TV Diner at lunch. Or whatever. The food here is uniquely awful in its own way. And not free. But you are stuck with it. 

What I will say is that the newish Star Wars area – Galaxy’s Edge – is a safe place if you are a middle-aged couch potato who is into the whole lightsaber drag look. Interestingly Disney is shuttering its bespoke Star Wars immersive hotel which ran a measly $6K USD for a two-day Jedi Mind Meld or something for a family of four. They are also canceling a $1 Billion dollar development in the area because of the ongoing feud with Governor Ron DeSantis. Or with the thousands of layoffs maybe business isn’t that good. I complain about the lines at the park but they weren’t that bad.

After my second day of 10,000 blistered steps I dragged my ass and Adam’s and Monica’s back to the overheated car and we collectively hit the pool at the condo which, sadly, might have been my brother’s most enjoyable experience. The next day we took a day off to play golf at one of the Disney courses to stay in character. Not free but pleasant enough because I managed a few decent holes in the heat.

I held back the last day of our odyssey for the Animal Kingdom. This is the newest park but it’s still decades old save for the Avatar area. We went on a tame little river thing that was more It’s A Small World than the movie complete with animatronics that were slightly better than that of Pirates of The Caribbean. As for the rest of the park, Africa had the Safari truck ride with, and this is unique, real live animals and the wisecracking guide made it entertaining. No thrills anywhere else as the decades old Kali River Rapids, the whiplash-inducing Dinosaur Wayback Machine and the Festival Of The Lion King were a little tired. The screams of three year-olds freaking out in the 3D  It’s Tough To A Bug show ruined the experience which is still okay all these years later, even though they have cut back on the creepy crawler feature in the seats. However in the Asian area there’s a new geopolitically correct popup restaurant called Charlie Don’t Surf… and Turf where you enter a bamboo hut with 150% humidity and change into bullet ridden black pajamas before being forced to squat in six inches of fetid water waiting to be served the only item on the menu, a maggot-infested bowl of cold rice. Ambience is provided by one banged up loudspeaker last used by Gary Burghoff blaring out Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner and the waitstaff are GI’s staggering around in tattered fatigues wasted on jungle smack. I asked one of the brothers who was in charge and he turned to me with a glassy eyed stare permeated with PTSD paranoia and yelled, “Aintchoo?” Unfortunately soldier, at Disney World, nobody is in charge.

Bottom line is that if you are fortunate enough to have grandchildren, don’t let your kids drag you to Orlando under the guise of experiencing your second gen spawn’s wonderment in the first person. First, you will be paying in the first person and, second, the sensory overload on these kids will make them hyperkinetic and it won’t be pretty. Third, like me, you will think back on the thousands you gave a now overwoke Disney in the past to entertain your kids and realize that the money would have been better spent renting an RV and camping at some national parks. Or ski lessons, or a backyard pool. Collectively, now four generations deep, we have given the Disney Company way too much of our money. Time to reclaim our own imagineering skills and create something unique and personal for your children and grandchildren.

As for Orlando, a clusterfuck of theme parks, you might be better off at Universal Studios. More thrills, more chills but more dough. If I had known I would have gone to the machine gun range and reserved a spot driving an actual military tank in a single theme park, attractions which are E tickets in that crazy amusement park called the United States of America.

Disney is trading on nostalgia for their own brand of artifice. In this case, it’s post-war boom America, the emergence of five-day workweeks for the union class, easy credit and family-friendly entertainment that was uniquely American in the Normal Rockwell tradition. A singularly white USA to be frank. Not that I am the most woke individual on the planet but that palette has changed. Disney’s filmed entertainment has embraced the change, perhaps overdoing it a bit….but at Disney World…

Sadly, however, as I drove away from Disney that last day with Adam and Monica, mission accomplished as far as my brother is concerned, I knew that like most places I am visiting now, this would be the last time. 

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